The Passionate Pilgrim 1.13: Will Kempe

“And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them. For there be of them that will themselves laugh to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered.”

Hamlet, III, 37-42

Directors thinking they should try to trim the length of Hamlet often excise this and the remainder of Hamlet’s famous speech in order to get on with the story. When they do so, they are flying in the face of the author’s very specific advice.

There are two things to consider here. One is meddling with the text. The other is the tendency of some actors to vamp, to add extra action, business which attracts attention to themselves and away from the play and to selfishly steal the scene.

We have seen how Ned Allyen was accused of the first fault. Will Kempe was the prime example of the second offense.

William Kempe (right) from Nine Days Wonder (1600)
William Kempe (right) from Nine Days Wonder (1600)

In his time, Kempe was as famous for his stage jigs as for his acting in regular drama. The jig, a kind of rustic cousin to commedia dell’arte, featured partially improvised song-and-dance routines, juggling, gymnastics, physical comedy, mimicry and what is today referred to as shtick. If Hamlet’s advice is any guide, Kempe and his type of actor had a bag full of antic improvs that could be inserted at any moment in any play whenever the actor thought he could milk the moment. This made Kempe popular with his audience but probably did not endear him with his other actors who stuck closer to the script.

About this type of acting, Hamlet further observes:

And then you have some again that keeps one suit of jests, as a man is known by one suit of apparel; and gentlemen quote his jests down in their table before they come to the play; as thus, ‘Cannot you stay till I eat my porridge?’ and ‘You owe me a quarter’s wages’, and ‘My coat wants a cullison’, and ‘Your beer is sour’, and blabbering with his lips, and thus keeping his cinquepace of jests, when, God knows, the warm clown cannot make a jest unless by chance, as the blind man catcheth a hare.

III.2 43-53

As an actor, Kempe is specifically identified with two roles: Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing and Peter in Romeo and Juliet. In addition, various parts that he may have played include: Costard in Love’s Labours Lost, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lancelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, and Cob in Ben Jonson‘s Every Man in His Humour. Some commentators suggest that Kemp also played Falstaff which in my view is unlikely. Falstaff is a comic role, in parts, but has more dimension than Kempe’s reputation suggests he could have understood or sustained.

Wood carving of Will Kempe in Chapelfield Gardens, Norwich
Wood carving of Will Kempe in Chapelfield Gardens, Norwich

Kempe first appears in correspondence between Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s spymaster, and Sir Philip Sydney, nephew of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, patron of Leicester’s Men for whom Kempe performed starting in about 1585. In that same year, Kempe accompanied two other future members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, George Bryan and Thomas Pope, to Elsinore where he entertained Frederick II of Denmark.

In all likelihood Kempe was the model for the character Yorick, the skull of the clown unearthed in Hamlet (1603). Kempe, a founding member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, had been forced out of the company by 1599 and is believed to have died in 1603 after making a strange, antic tour of England, known as the Nine Days Wonder in 1600. Was Yorick an homage, a jest or both?

Regardless, Hamlet makes it clear that he wants nothing to do with Kempe’s improvisational manner of acting which relied too much on antic jigs and departed too much from the life of the text.

In my view, what Hamlet is advocating is a more natural style of acting, a style that relied less on bombast (Alleyn) or extemporaneous clowning (Kempe) than on “holding up a mirror to life”. This type of actor was a radical change from what had preceded him on the English stage. It was a type of actor who worked from within, not from without, who lived the character rather than merely projected it.

The actor Hamlet was talking about was Richard Burbage.

Next:     Richard Burbage.

PeteHeadshotDr. Peter Hodges holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Washington (class of ‘75), an M.A. in Directing and a Ph. D. in Literature from The City Graduate Center of The City University of New York City, New York (1986 and 1992).  Dr. Pete (as he is sometimes known among his friends) is a 30 year veteran of the Wall Street wars, author and producer of more than a dozen plays, a novel, and a critical study of Sadakichi Hartmann’s plays.

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